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For Afghan Women, Rights Again at Risk

By Rachel Reid
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

KABUL -- When the United States and its allies went to war against the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, "liberating the women of Afghanistan" was often cited as one of the reasons to seek "regime change." More than seven years later, however, the situation for Afghan women remains dire.

There have been some bright spots: Women now hold seats in the Afghan parliament, and millions of girls have been able to attend primary school. But educational gains plummet when girls hit secondary school, with just 4 percent of female students reaching 10th grade. Violence against women is endemic; women in public life are regularly threatened, and several have been assassinated.

Things got much worse recently when President Hamid Karzai officially promulgated legislation that would make the Taliban proud. Unfortunately, this is part of a pattern: As Karzai's government has grown weaker he has increasingly turned to some of society's most conservative elements for support.

The Shia Personal Status Law, the most egregious of a series of deals to appease fundamentalist religious leaders and former warlords, contains many provisions that are offensive to women. Custody rights are granted exclusively to fathers and grandfathers. A woman can leave the house without her husband's permission only if she has "reasonable legal reasons," which are unspecified. Yet the law does stipulate financial compensation to be paid by a man who rapes a child or a mentally ill woman, for her loss of virginity, while omitting any reference to a criminal punishment.

Karzai issued the law on July 27 with no public announcement. It came as little surprise that he tried to keep things quiet after the hammering his popularity took in April, when it first emerged that he had signed on to an earlier version of the legislation. President Obama and other world leaders denounced the law then. Even NATO's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, warned that public reaction in NATO member countries would be to withdraw support for sending their troops to fight in a country that treated women in such ways. Karzai responded by claiming that he had never seen the offending document -- the same excuse he gave last summer after he pardoned two well-connected gang rapists who had served just a fraction of their 11-year prison terms.

Under pressure, Karzai promised to review the legislation. This review led to some improvements, including the removal of an article that gave a man the right to have sex with his wife once every four nights. But many of the most repressive provisions remain. By enacting the law, the president has dashed hopes that official discrimination and the oppression of women by their own government was a thing of the past in Afghanistan.

To guarantee his reelection this week, Karzai has not only made deals with hard-line Shiite leaders but also has held out the prospect of cabinet seats to former warlords and abusive military commanders from all the main ethnic groups. Many of these aging warlords' attitudes toward women are little different from those of the Taliban.

Perhaps of more concern for women and girls is that Karzai is positioning himself as someone who can bring the Taliban and other fundamentalist factions back into the fold. Scant regard is being paid to what this would mean for Afghan women, who have worked courageously for the precious few freedoms they have won in recent years.

When I ask diplomats here what deals with the Taliban will mean for women, I get platitudes and assurances that officials are "only talking to those who sign up to the Afghan constitution." But if the president does not feel bound by the constitution's promise to make men and women equal before the law, should anyone believe it would constrain a former insurgent? As one female activist told me: "Deals with the Taliban will mean everything we have achieved in the last eight years could be lost. It will have been only a dream."

The Kabul government and its backers are supposed to be different from the people they are fighting. Yet with regard to women's rights, Afghans might conclude that there isn't as much difference between the two as they had hoped.

Western governments that expressed horror at Taliban misogyny only a few years ago should not fall silent. Many -- including the U.S. administration -- are uneasy about speaking out about this law so close to the presidential election. But that is just the response that Karzai hoped for. Afghan women want to participate in elections and have peace and security. The price for this should not be their rights.

The writer is the Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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